(Source: RIC/NWU)
Anakin Skywalker would be proud

It may surprise some that while there's been a growing multitude of thought-controlled bionic arms and thought-controlled bionic hands on the market for some time now for amputees, amputees who lost part or all of a leg are still forced to get by with old fashioned prostheses.

But that's about to change as the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) and nearby Northwestern University (NWU) has devised an industry first "bionic" (thought-controlled electric) leg.  The RIC team took four years to develop the robotic limb, and the cost was $8M USD, financed through a grant from the U.S. Army’s Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC).

The Army is funding this project for a reason -- 1,200 of servicemen and veterans are recent leg amputees, having lost limbs in the Iraq or Afghanistan.  The Army's funding means that these wounded veterans will get to be on the frontline of testing the new bionic limbs, as they creep towards a consumer market launch targeted for 2018.

Bionic leg
[Image Source: NWU/RIC]

Col. John Scherer, director of the Clinical and Rehabilitative Medicine Program at the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, says the new robotic limbs really have a leg up on old-fashioned prosthetics.  

Bionic Leg RIC
Prof. Hargrove with the bionic leg [Image Source: RIC/NWU]

He remarks, "We are pleased to partner with the RIC Center for Bionic Medicine in the development of user intent controlled bionic limbs.  We appreciate the opportunity to sponsor this life-changing effort to provide military amputees with as much physical functionality as possible, as soon as possible."

Bionic leg
[Image Source: RIC/NWU]

Levi Hargrove, PhD, the professor who led the effort to develop the bionic limb, describes it, stating, "This new bionic leg features incredibly intelligent engineering.  It learns and performs activities unprecedented for any leg amputee, including seamless transitions between sitting, walking, ascending and descending stairs and ramps and repositioning the leg while seated."

Bionic Leg climbing
[Image Source: RIC/NWU]

While part of the limb's response comes from sensors -- accelerometers, level sensors, etc. -- it takes signals from a patient's own nerves as well, crucial for these kinds of complex actions.

In order to tap the patient's nerves, the patient must undergo relatively minor surgery to "redirect" nerves from the site of the amputation to healthy tissue in their upper leg.  Once established, these redirected nerves are monitored by electrodes, which feed into the leg.

Bionic leg
[Image Source: RIC/NWU]

A 2009 case study by NWU and RIC showed promising results.  Zac Vawter, a single-leg amputee had his nerves redirected into healthy hamstring tissue above his amputation.  He then was able to use the new bionic limb to improve his daily life.  

He explains:

The bionic leg is a big improvement compared to my regular prosthetic leg.  The bionic leg responds quickly and more appropriately, allowing me to interact with my environment in a way that is similar to how I moved before my amputation. For the first time since my injury, the bionic leg allows me to seamlessly walk up and down stairs and even reposition the prosthetic by thinking about the movement I want to perform. This is a huge milestone for me and for all leg amputees.

As a test Mr. Vawter climbed the 103 stories of Chicago's Willis Tower, completing a trek that would take a fit person with two healthy legs 30 minutes, in a modest 45 minutes.

Of course, the technology holds promise for able-bodied folks as well, as it should be applicably to leg exoskeleton.  Numerous groups are working on such exoskeletons that allow the elderly greater mobility or can be used to prevent joint damage when lifting, carrying, and walking with heavy loads.

A paper on the new bionic limb has been published in the New England Journal of Medicine, a prestigious peer-reviewed medical journal.

Sources: RIC, New England Journal of Medicine, YouTube

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